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Two Kinds of Churches Part 4: Is Your Foundation Cracked?

So what does it take to develop a transformational culture in your congregation?

Shirley and I lived for several years in Denver so I could go to seminary there. Needing a place to live, we enlisted a realtor to show us affordable houses. One of the homes was in a nicer neighborhood. It had a great view of the mountains. The front looked neat and clean. But when we got into the back bedroom, we discovered why it was in our price range. There we found a crack from floor to ceiling wide enough to see the outdoors.

Having grown up around the construction trade, I knew this crack signaled that the house had a bad foundation—that the house would fall down someday if it was not condemned by the city first. It was an easy ‘no’ decision.

All buildings built to last must have good foundations. And the taller they are, the deeper the foundation has to be to absorb the pressure from above. The foundation of The Empire State Building, which reigned as the tallest building for 40 years goes down below ground fifty-five feet. The current world’s tallest skyscraper, Burj Khalifa, has a foundation that bottoms out at 164 feet. These foundations do not just keep the skyscrapers up. They keep them from sinking, crumbling or tilting (think ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’).

When it comes to Jesus’ church, we need to think this same way. No one can build up a church unless he or she builds on a deep foundation. Paul is pretty explicit about this in his letter to the divisive leaders at Corinth. “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15 NIV)

Building on the foundation of Jesus Christ matters. But what does Paul mean by this statement? One implication is that some of his readers are building their congregations on some other foundation. They think that the teaching of a Paul or an Apollos or a Peter is what being in the faith is all about. It is kind of like, “Yes, Jesus’ teaching is important, but those who came after him had so much more depth.”

Paul is disabusing them of this kind of thinking. It is not just the teaching of Jesus he laid as foundation. It is what Jesus did through his death and resurrection that has changed their lives forever. All the teachers implicated in their congregational division are focused on the wisdom of the teacher instead of the finished work of Christ. If Paul, Apollos or Peter were to build on that foundation, nothing eternal would come out of it. This stands as a warning for the Corinthian leaders to pay attention to their own craftsmanship.

But Paul is saying more. He recognizes that all leaders want to build ‘wisdom’ into people so they will grow up as disciples. Paul uses that very word in 3:18-19. We do this because we believe information is the most important ingredient for growing Jesus’ church. Paul rejects this. He starts the chapter by referring to living by the Spirit and reminds them again in verse 16 they are a temple where God’s Spirit lives. In other words, building up people to know what they are—God’s temple—and who is empowering them to become this temple is the foundation of a healthy church. Making this clear is of the utmost importance. On the other hand, seeking to build them up with wise teaching apart from understanding the true foundation can be divisive and defeating. We can use the best writings of Calvin or Luther or Chafer or C.S. Lewis or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Carl Ellis or whoever we admire most and find ourselves defacing God’s temple. We can totally forget to teach about the foundation, building our disciples on the sand instead and wonder why people never gain a stable growing faith in Jesus.

What I have learned is that building on the deep foundation of Christ Jesus leads to developing transformational culture in my congregation. Transformation is the heart of the gospel. What God accomplished through the incarnation was finished, not just started. He was not asking people to be as good as they can. Or to get with it and work harder. Or to smarten up. By the Spirit, He Himself is conforming us into the image of Jesus. This is not something that will someday occur when we get into His presence. This is the deep foundation that is laid and that we get to build on. It is happening now in the lives of you and me and every person who has put their faith in Jesus.

-Steve Smith